Memphis police officers held down Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, and took turns punching and kicking him as he pleaded for them to stop, according to video footage released by officials yesterday. Nichols died in the hospital three days after the Jan. 7 traffic stop.
The videos are grim and at times difficult to watch, but what they show is important. Today’s newsletter will focus on what we know and don’t know about the beating and the reaction from the public and officials.
The videos: The confrontation began while Nichols was still in his car, based on footage from a surveillance camera and those worn by police officers. Almost immediately, officers yelled at Nichols to get out of the vehicle, using expletives. They then forcefully pulled Nichols out and held him down.
Nichols appeared to cooperate, telling the officers, “I’m just trying to go home.” Although he showed no signs of resistance, they continued to yell at and threaten him. As he lay on the ground, officers pepper-sprayed him. Nichols then fled, and officers pursued him. “I hope they stomp his ass,” said one officer who remained behind.
The officers caught Nichols and then held him down as they punched and kicked him, hit him with a baton and pepper-sprayed him while he grew increasingly incapacitated. He did not appear to fight back or resist. He yelled for his mother at one point.
Afterwards, Nichols sat propped up against a car as police officers surrounded him. Medics arrived on the scene, but they did not attend to Nichols for 16 minutes. He was taken to the hospital nearly an hour after the initial traffic stop. (Here’s a timeline of the encounter,
What we don’t know: The videos do not show why Nichols was first stopped. Later, within minutes of the beating, officers said on video that Nichols had grabbed for their firearms, with one saying Nichols “had his hand on my gun.” If he did, it did not appear on the recordings.
The officers have also said that they had stopped Nichols on suspicion of reckless driving, but in an interview with NBC NewsPolice Chief Cerelyn Davis said her department has been unable to find evidence for why he was stopped.
The response: Memphis, a predominantly Black city with a history of Black police chiefs, had largely avoided the national spotlight amid protests over police misconduct. Nichols’s killing changed that. Last night, protesters blocked a bridge linking the city to Arkansas and an interstate highway, trying to stop traffic.
Demonstrators in cities across the country expressed sorrow, anger and exhaustion at watching the video images of Nichols. The protests remained largely nonviolent, though police in New York City did detain three protesters and a demonstrator smashed the windshield of a police cruiser.
The charges: Before the video’s release, the five officers involved in the beating, who are all Black, were indicted on charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping and other crimes. “No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” said a lawyer for one of the officers. All five posted bail and have been released from jail.
The officers have been fired from the Memphis Police Department. They had served in a specialized unit, called Scorpion, which stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods” and was formed to crack down on serious crimes. The unit has been inactive since the traffic stop that killed Nichols, Mayor Jim Strickland said.
Two county sheriff’s deputies who were on the scene after the beating were also relieved of duty pending an investigation.
Policing overhauls: Nichols’s family has called for changes to the Memphis police force and for the department to disband the Scorpion unit. From 2016 to 2022, police used force against Black residents nearly three times more frequently that against white residents, according to city data,
After the 2020 demonstrations over George Floyd’s murder, state and local officials around the country implemented changes including bans on chokeholds, restrictions on the use of force and requirements that officers wear cameras. But activists argue that the steps have fallen short of holding the police accountable and have failed to prevent unnecessary violence.
What’s next: Protesters planned more demonstrations today in Memphis.
Americans abandoned the issue of police reform and should be ashamed, writes Charles M. Blow.
It’s not especially surprising that the five officers indicted in Nichols’s death are Black, the journalist Wesley Lowery tweeted, “In tracking police violence, we never found that the race of the officer made much difference.”
Automated speed cameras, license-plate readers and other technology can better and more safely enforce traffic laws than the police, Sarah Seo of Columbia Law School has written for Times Opinion.
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